Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Now Compiling the Official Domesday Book of Labour Lies

Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Now Compiling the Official Domesday Book of Labour Lies

Article excerpt


For the most part New Labour has treated Parliament with disdain. Announcements are made elsewhere. Tony Blair does not bother to conceal his impatience with the Commons. He votes in a lower proportion of divisions than any previous Prime Minister in history. However, there have, very occasionally, been moments when Labour ministers have expressed reverence for British parliamentary tradition.

One came in January last year when the Prime Minister cast around for an excuse to evade the apparently cast-iron undertaking made by his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, that Labour would take part in a television debate involving all three party leaders. In a moment of surreal solemnity, it suddenly emerged that Tony Blair was agitated by the threat 'to the political and constitutional traditions of this country, and repelled by the spectre of presidential politics'.

Stephen Byers is a similar case in point. He yields to no other member of Tony Blair's Cabinet in his preference for the television studio over the parliamentary chamber, and the well-placed media leak rather than the proper and formal announcement to Parliament. In the last Parliament he was severely censured for issuing statements away from the Commons.

Last Tuesday Byers discovered that Parliament has its uses. It enabled him to savage the reputation of his former director of information, Martin Sixsmith, to his heart's content under cover of parliamentary privilege. Whether Byers would be prepared to repeat some of his slanderous assertions about Sixsmith outside the Commons, and open himself up to the risk of legal action, remains to be seen. His statement was not one of the great parliamentary occasions. But it was full of its own fascination. Afterwards Labour MPs hailed it as some kind of triumph.

Which it was, in the sense that the Blair government obtained its objective: Byers's survival. But in every other respect it was a lowering affair. I have rarely witnessed anything as revolting as the Labour whips choreographing support for their man as he revealed that he had lied, not once but four times, on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme last Sunday. Stephen Byers's mendacity did not disturb Labour backbenchers, or the array of Cabinet ministers alongside him. At the end of it all, Keith Hill, the deputy chief whip, rose from his seat, stretched, smiled at a job well done and then leant in a proprietorial fashion over the civil service box containing the small group of Department of Transport officials who had come to watch the big occasion.

And as Keith Hill joshed with the civil servants, I reflected that a new doctrine had now taken hold in British public life: that ministers can lie, be caught out lying, and keep their jobs. The novelty of the new dogma cannot be overstated. Seven or eight years ago, as a callow reporter on the London Evening Standard, I remember listening to William Waldegrave, then a Cabinet minister, giving evidence to a backbench committee. Waldegrave uttered words to the effect that it was all right, in special circumstances, for a government minister to lie. I went back and reported these words to the political editor, Charles Reiss. 'Do you think we could make something of this?' I tentatively muttered. …

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